WASHINGTON–Leave it to Congress to churn out a back-from-the-dead thriller, with a ghostly jet engine in the lead role.

The House Armed Services Committee voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to allow continued production of the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. The committee’s vote comes less than a month after Congress officially killed the engine program–and days after Pratt & Whitney, which makes the main engine for the JSF, celebrated the demise of a competitor.

Wednesday’s action would not bring the alternate engine back to life on the government’s dime. It would allow General Electric and Rolls Royce, which are developing the engine, to continue production if they pay for it themselves.

But the provision, included in the House defense authorization bill by a vote of 55-to-5, also would require the Department of Defense to give GE and Rolls access to the engine components they have produced so far, as well as to the government testing sites needed to complete development.

It is the latest-and perhaps most bizarre-twist in a long-running feud between Pratt and a GE-Rolls partnership that has been building the competing engine.

In April, Congress approved a fiscal year 2011 budget that had no money for the GE-Rolls engine, a major victory for Pratt in their years-long effort to kill the alternate engine and secure a monopoly on the program. In the wake of that budget deal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminated the alternate engine and ordered GE and Rolls to stop production.

And on Monday, members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation held a rally with Pratt officials to celebrate the company’s victory in the engine battle, among other wins. But last week, GE officials announced they would self-fund continued development of the engine for 2011 and 2012, at a cost of more than $100 million to the company. Proponents billed today’s legislative action as a way to let GE carry out that plan.

“Picture 200 million pieces of hardware in 17 different locations,” said GE spokesman Rick Kennedy.

That was the state of the alternate engine when the Pentagon sent GE its termination notices, he said. So continue development, even without government funding, Kennedy said, “we need access to the engines … and to the government testing facilities. That’s what this amendment is proposing.”

But Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, described it as a “rearguard action” and a “fight over scraps of the second engine program.”

He downplayed the significance of Wednesday’s vote, noting that the amendment, offered by New Jersey Rep. Robert Andrews, a Democrat, included no funding and wouldn’t reverse the Pentagon’s termination order.

“This does not change the fact that this is shutdown as far as the Pentagon is concerned,” Courtney said. “GE is a private company, and if they want to spend their money, they can do that.”

At the same time, Courtney said he and others would subject Andrews’ provision to intense scrutiny in the coming weeks. Noting that the amendment requires DOD to give GE access to government facilities, Courtney said, “I’m very skeptical that this doesn’t incur [government] expenses.”

Asked if he thought it could win final approval and become law, Courtney said much would depend on the White House’s reaction. “If the Pentagon and the White House shrug their shoulders and say this is no big deal, then this could survive,” he said. But given the president’s opposition to the second engine, Courtney said he anticipated “heavy static” from the Administration.

He and others said GE and Rolls were trying to keep the program alive until after the 2012 election, hoping perhaps that a more sympathetic White House occupant could restore funding after that.

But GE’s Kennedy said the company’s plan was a smart business move, not a political calculation. “There was a $3 billion taxpayer investment into these engines,” he said. “We’re trying to protect that for ourselves … This allows us to advance on that work.”

Kennedy noted that the first combat-ready JSF planes aren’t expected to be delivered until 2015 or later. “This is a very, very long-term program,” he said, and “we want to be part of that. To look one election cycle … we’re looking further beyond that.”

UTC, Pratt’s parent company, was relatively mum on the development. “We can just outrun this,” said a company lobbyist, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “By the time the Senate gets it, events may have overtaken this. The [Pentagon] will be busy mothballing the [GE-Rolls] engines.”

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